Generation next

By Greg Bruce

Move over, Millennials, there are some new kids in town.
Flynn Dawson, Meike Van Roij and Angus Lynch of Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Photo / Greg Bowker
Flynn Dawson, Meike Van Roij and Angus Lynch of Hobsonville Point Secondary School. Photo / Greg Bowker

Generation Z has been born into a world in which life, in many ways, sucks.
In 10 years' time, the younger members of this generation will be leaving university, almost certainly more heavily indebted than any generation before them, and they will be entering a workplace in which it is estimated that half of all currently existing jobs will have disappeared. The jobs that still exist will be increasingly insecure.

Gen Z-ers can expect to have eight major job changes over their working lifetimes.
Precluding a housing crash, only the thinnest scraping of Gen Z-ers — those with excellent jobs and with wealthy, benevolent parents — are going to be able to buy a house in Auckland. Even then, those houses will most likely be on the bare edge of the city, miles of car-clogged road from the love and support of their families.

"Generation Z" is one of those sloppy terms, co-opted by different people and groups to indicate different things. Roughly though, the first of the generation were born in the mid-1990s and the last in the mid-2000s, now ranging in age from their mid-20s down to those still in primary school.

They will emerge into a job market more precarious and changeable than any before, with more student debt than any generation before them, facing the likelihood of never owning a home in the city in which they grew up. Then there's climate change, rampant inequality, Trumpism and so forth.

"There's quite a generational tension that operates at the moment," says Paul Spoonley,
distinguished professor at Massey University, "that older generations have had the state look after their education or their health or their superannuation, and I think the younger generations are now at the point that they accept they're probably going to have to pay for a lot more of this, that nobody is going to look after them in the way that previous generations have been looked after. And so, I think they're more cynical."

Cynicism is fine and probably helpful in the situation they've been left, but it's not going to fix it.

Psychologists say that today's young people are less resilient than ever. Teachers both here and overseas are reporting increases in student depression, anxiety and decreases in their ability to deal with everyday problems. Leading American psychologist Peter Gray talks of a major university he was working with, at which a student reported being traumatised when her roommate called her "bitch" and two students sought counselling after seeing a mouse in their house.

Part of the reason for this decline in resilience,says Elizabeth Peterson, senior lecturer in psych-ology at the University of Auckland, is over-protective parenting, which prevents them from learning how to deal with the emotions that come with setbacks. It creates an environment in which it's not safe to make mistakes.

"If it's not safe to make mistakes," she says, "it's not safe to grow."

While the age of puberty varies around the world, it's been steadily lowering, and is now lower than ever before. Girls in New Zealand often now go through puberty about age 10 or 11, with boys typically about a year later. Paediatricians have noticed an increase in children going through early puberty, which is now defined as before 8 in girls and before 9 in boys. At the same time, the age at which young people's ability to reason is fully developed is getting later, creating in that gap what Peterson calls a "double whammy": hormones leading to erratic behaviour, combined with a brain that doesn't how to deal with that.

"I think we are going to have higher rates of mental health issues because I think they don't have the individual resources to deal with when things don't work," Peterson says. "Once you've got poor mental health, that affects everything else — your relationships, your work, your family."

If it's not safe to make mistakes, it's not safe to grow.
Elizabeth Peterson

Issues of resilience are on the mind of Hobsonville Point Secondary School principal Maurie Abraham, and they are issues that the school has to some extent been built on.

"We can make it harder if we protect them too much," Abraham says, "or if schools are too institutionalised. What we do is grizzle about how much resilience the young people don't have and how they're not independent learners but we make them go to a school where a bell goes every hour that regulates where they have to be and when, we tell them what to learn and when to learn it and if they try to break out of that, we grab them and punish them and chuck them back into the machine again right up until they're 18. No way is that preparing them for the world."

Abraham and three Hobsonville Point students sat down with me one recent afternoon and discussed what it meant to be part of Generation Z. "I think our generation is at a turning point," Year 11 student Meike Van Roij, 15, said. "Everything leading up to this, we're almost the ones that need to make the switch."

"I use an analogy," her classmate Flynn Dawson said. "Think of somebody born in 1890 or 1900, you would think of them as the same person because they've grown up in the same environment; whereas you think of someone born in 1990 or 2000, like us, you would think of them as completely different people because they've grown up in these environments that have changed so drastically."

He went on: "We're just trying to cope with it as best we can."

At the heart of this change is technology, specifically the ability to connect all the time with everyone in the world, the connection through mobile devices to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, to never be away from people, to never be alone.

Technology, obviously, brings its own challenges and potential problems, but it's the least of their worries. Are they angry or resentful towards previous generations for the damage they have done to the climate, to the housing market, to their chances of ever emerging from under a debt mountain to live decent, secure lives?

"All these things have happened," Dawson said, "but obviously in the 70s and 80s, they didn't know that. People didn't know about climate change until ... slightly earlier, I think it was brought up but ..."

"Every generation is going to leave their problems," Van Roij said. "We were talking before about the benefits of social media and also there's going to be negatives. Everything is going to have a negative and positive as long as you want to keep advancing and that's something we naturally do."

"I think we have to go back a bit further to find the people to blame, to be honest," classmate Angus Lynch said.

Are they angry towards those people?

"Nah," they all said together.

"Because to them," Dawson said, "the people who made the first steam engine or something, a massive advancement, it's obviously changed our world in both positive and negative ways."

"And we have no idea," Lynch said. "We could be doing the same thing. We could make all these solar panels ..."

"We could invent AI in a couple of years," Dawson interjected.

"What happens if we do solar panels," Lynch said, "and they're great and we replace all our electricity with solar panels and we discover in 100 years that solar panels, for whatever reason, do something?"

Are they optimistic?

"I think it's based on the way we go now from here on out," Dawson said. "Based on what we do, it's going to have an impact on the world — positive or negative. If we can find a way to fix these problems we have now, we can focus on making the world better."

They demand a voice. I'd say that's the key difference. And we fail to meet their needs when we don't listen to their voice.
Maurie Abraham

Hobsonville Point Secondary School is an interesting case study because it is arguably Auckland's newest and most radical answer to one of the big questions of generational change: if we accept both that young people and the world around them are changing, do we need to change the way we educate those young people or do young people need to change to fit the way we educate?

Maurie Abraham says, "You've got to be prepared to throw out the tried and true methods that have been in place for more than half a century. I don't know about you but if I walked into a hospital that looked like hospitals in the 1970s — when I was at secondary school — I wouldn't go into it today. I'd go and find another one."

Despite that, tradition seems increasingly attractive to many Auckland parents. Places like Auckland Grammar and Epsom Girls' Grammar have always been sought-after but many parents are also looking to Catholic schools for their conservative values and for their academic achievements that are often wildly superior to other schools from equivalent areas and deciles.

St Paul's College, a Catholic school in Ponsonby, is what you might call a traditional school. Its principal, Kieran Fouhy, says: "If you look back on school mottos, the early mottos are about character formation ... Schools starting off now are all about achievement and a lot of it's individual achievement. They don't see communal achievement being worthwhile."

Abraham says you can't demand things from this generation. Teachers can't demand respect and they can't demand control over the material students learn from.

They're dealing with a generation of people that have unprecedented autonomy over their lives because they have unprecedented access to information, knowledge and social interactions.

"When I was at school, you went to school to learn stuff," Abraham says.
"You don't need to go to school to do that anymore.

"They demand a voice. I'd say that's the key difference. They demand a voice. And we fail to meet their learning and personal development needs when we don't listen to their voice."

It's hard to imagine two schools more different than ancient, inner-city, Catholic,
decile 2 St Paul's and brand new, liberal-as-heck decile 10, Hobsonville Point, but Fouhy emphasises the importance of communal achievement over individual achievement.

Abraham says: "We're not purposefully setting out to change the world but we're wanting to grow people who want to make the world better."

It is not a new thing to talk about the future of the world in apocalyptic terms, particularly at times of great upheaval, such as the one we're in now — it can be tempting, and even strangely comforting. But the world is not doomed, at least not yet.

"If we were talking in the middle of the agrarian revolution or the industrial revolution," Spoonley says, "we'd probably be saying the world's coming to an end and the outlook for our children is hopeless. What happens is a new world is created. It's just not clear exactly what the shape of that new world is."

Meike Van Roij, Flynn Dawson and Angus Lynch. Photo / Greg Bowker
Meike Van Roij, Flynn Dawson and Angus Lynch. Photo / Greg Bowker



Z speak ...

The hand-picked students of Hobsonville Point Secondary School, absurdly bright, practically vibrating with insight and ambition, sit opposite their principal, Maurie Abraham - "Maurie" they call him, as do all their schoolmates - while I ask for insights into what it's like to be of their generation. They do their best to answer for the widely diverse range of people who make up that group of roughly 10-20-year-olds collectively known as "Generation Z".

They tell me their classes last as long as 160 minutes - "half a day, basically" - and are mostly taught as "modules", with names like "Pandemic", "Architects" and "iCare" rather than as "subjects" with names like "maths" and "English", although Maurie strongly insists the school is driven by the standard New Zealand curriculum.

One of the things we think Generation Z demand is that they have to see the relevance of the learning otherwise they're not going to bother.
Maurie Abraham

The students speak about how they spend each Wednesday working on big projects of their own devising, which can last for months or even years, whatever they want, really Fifteen-year-old Meike Van Roij says she spends her Wednesdays working on a project investigating new ways to deal with antibiotic resistance. She's working with two PhD students and a researcher from the University of Auckland. She anticipates the project will take three years - the rest of her time at high school.

"It's obviously a really big thing," she says. "I"ve only just started researching it and that's taken half a year."

Another of the students, Angus Lynch, has spent the first half of the year working on a project to develop a self-healing material. He found a recipe but the school doesn't have the resources to heat petrol to 300 degrees and then put it in a vacuum under 3000 bars of pressure, so he will shelve the project at the end of this semester and come up with something else to do on Wednesdays.

"These guys are able to pursue their own area of interest," Maurie says, "because one of the things we think Generation Z demand is that they have to see the relevance of the learning otherwise they're not going to bother."

Two of the three students hope to work with Unicef after leaving school. The third wants to do something combining robotics and medicine. These are just their starter ideas. They lob other possibilities around. All of these - medicine, teaching, charity, and on and on - involve helping others.

I sit with these hand-picked students and their radical principal for an hour and a half while they speak confidently, clearly and at length about a type of schooling I do not recognise and can barely comprehend.

"This is Year 11," Abraham said. "This is fifth form. You want to go back to school, eh?"

Yik Yak launched in 2013.
Yik Yak launched in 2013.

I don't, but it was an undeniably attractive vision of something I'm glad I'll never have to do again. The students are so clear-eyed, charismatic and articulate, it feels like sitting in on the induction ceremony for a religious cult, or the launch of a new iPhone.

"These students are clearly hand-picked," I say.

"They aren't hand-picked," Abraham says. "We get between five and eight visiting groups a week."

"Everybody gets asked to talk to visitors," one of the students said.

"These are normal, northwest Auckland teenagers," Abraham says. "But their creativity is not quashed, their voice is heard, they help design the learning programmes, they're able to pursue their interests. We don't lock them down with crazy institutional rules about things."

He turns to the students: "Is that a fair summary?"

"Yep," they say together.

Abraham says, "All kids would be like this if their schooling environment enabled it."


Generations from A-Z

Baby boomers (1946-1964) 50s-70s
Music: Yesterday, The Beatles
Food: Corned beef and peas
Burning social issues: The Vietnam War, Women's Lib
Role models: Edmund Hillary, Richie McCaw
Pop icon: Jane Fonda

Generation X (1965-1976) 40s-50s
Music: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
Food: Eye fillet and dauphinoise potatoes
Burning social issues: Springbok Tour, nuclear war
Role models: Gordon Gekko & Richie McCaw
Pop icon: David Bowie

Gen Y / Millennials (1977-1994) 20s-30s
Music: All The Single Ladies, Beyonce
Food: Slow-cooked beef brisket
Burning social issue: Global warming
Role models: Mark Zuckerberg, Richie McCaw
Pop icon: Kim Kardashian

Beyonce, the musical idol of Generation Y. Photo / Parkwood Entertainment
Beyonce, the musical idol of Generation Y. Photo / Parkwood Entertainment

Generation Z (1995-mid-2000s) tweens-early 20s
Music: You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift
Food: None (allergies)
Burning social issue: Screen time
Role models: Jamie Curry, Richie McCaw
Pop icons: Lorde, The Wiggles

Generation Alpha (mid 2000s-on) 10-and-under
Music: Happy by Pharrell Williams
Food: Nutri-bullet smoothies
Burning social issues: Is there palm oil in Coco-Pops?
Role models: Elsa from Frozen, Richie McCaw
Pop icon: Peppa Pig

- Canvas

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